Last December, Twitter was abuzz with praise for Funke Akindele’s latest offering, “A Tribe called Judah,” which broke the record for the highest-grossing Nigerian film of all time. Onome, who lives in Yenagoa, looked forward to seeing the movie during her short Christmas break from work. But the cinema tickets were more expensive than she could afford.
“When I was shopping for the movie ticket, I saw that the prices were just too expensive,” Onome said. The following day, Onome’s friend invited her into a Telegram group where she could download the film and many more Nollywood releases for free.
“No stress,” the 30-year-old civil servant said.
The rise of pirated Nollywood films on Telegram has been a headache for Nigerian filmmakers, who struggle to recoup the millions of naira they spend during production. According to the Cinemas Exhibitors Association of Nigeria (CEAN), “A Tribe Called Judah” dipped in ticket sales by 55% between January 12, 2024 and January 18, 2024. About a week ago, Toyin Abraham, a Nigerian filmmaker, raised an outcry after an unlicensed version of “Malaika,” her N500 million film, circulated online. Abraham’s outrage was the latest in an age-long protest against copyright crimes in the country.
In 2017, Kunle Afolayan’s “October 1” was pirated and hawked on the street before the movie premiered at the cinema. Afolayan contemplated boycotting Nigeria after losing money on that production. But film piracy, also a challenge in Hollywood, has existed since the genesis of Nollywood in 1992. In the pioneer days of the industry, bootlegs of popular films flooded rental shops and markets.
Alaba International Market, Nigeria’s largest electronics market, has a rich history as a hotspot for pirated films. Once a new Nollywood film was set to hit the cinema, copyright thieves procured a copy of the original film and reproduced it into as many as 20 million copies. These movies were then shipped through a clandestine network to distributors in Onitsha, Aba and Port Harcourt, where they were eventually sold.
The modus operandi of film pirates has evolved to keep up with growing internet penetration and the latest trend of streaming. Instead of bootleg DVDs flooding rental shops in the markets, movies are dubbed into mp4 files and uploaded on digital platforms for anyone to download seamlessly. Although it’s not clear how these websites make profits, they attract a quite steady stream of traffic from the film-loving public. The foremost of such sites was NetNaija, which began in 2009. For years, NetNaija was a go-to repository for Nollywood films until it discontinued its movie channel in 2023.
Like NetNaija, Telegram has become a new repository of pirated Nollywood and foreign blockbusters. Movie files are uploaded to channels seeking to garner traffic. Many such channels boast more than 40,000 members.
The battle against piracy has grown into a full-scale war involving the government and its security agencies. Days after Toyin Abraham’s outcry, the police said they had arrested 5 suspects in relation to “conspiracy, infringement on intellectual property, piracy, and cyber-related crimes concerning the unlawful distribution of the movie.” But will this deter film pirates? Perhaps not.
In 2017, the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) launched a campaign on piracy operations in the country, seizing 1,301,649 bootlegged works valued at N1.26 billion. Neither arrests nor confiscations have crushed piracy in Nigeria, which remains undefeated like a hydra-headed monster.
And it’s not hard to see why this war has been ineffective.
“Going to see a movie in a cinema is way too expensive. It’s even more comforting watching the movie in your house; you know Netflix and chill,” Onome said with a smile.
During the oil boom of the 1970s, movie-going became a national pastime as Nigerians had more disposable income. However, the conspiracy of inflation and devaluation has stifled that thriving cinema-going culture. Today, less than 20 percent of Nigerians still go to the cinema, according to the National Film and Video Censor Board, Nollywood’s regulatory agency. Cinema tickets rose from N2500 on average to N6500 between 2019 and 2023. Shrinking purchasing power over the years is, no doubt, to blame for the cultural shift.
Many more Nigerians, like Onome, will continue to use Telegram and pirate sites to download their favourite Nollywood content until inflation recedes and the economy shapes up, which is the ultimate root of the problem.